Let’s Talk About Gâteau

The Ahava Cake: citrus mascarpone cheesecake with tempered dark chocolate discs. The discs are calligraphed with L-O-V-E and אהבה (a-ha-va-h) — the four Hebrew letters that spell “LOVE” (Photo: viv)

LONG before I knew the word, gateau, I had a mild fascination for this other word, plateau — fascinated not so much by what it was, but how it wasn’t pronounced the way I thought it should be. Why pla-toh, and not pla-tew

This was way back when I was still sucking thumb, all of fourteen in Secondary Two, half-dozing off at the height of the afternoon heat, while my teacher, Ms Lily Ong, was droning on about the physical characteristics of plains and plateaus in a geography class. 

I suppose that was how I developed an interest in French. I not only wanted to know how I could use French words in my writing — such a show-off, right? — I also wanted to know how to articulate them: coup de grâce, for instance, or raison d’être, a word I had learned from Lee Kuan Yew, one I must have highlighted in one of the many news articles I had the habit of clipping from the local daily. 

Today, I still have no interest in plateaus whatsoever, but gateau and gateaux, ah, that’s a different story!

Gateau is cake, gateaux is cakes. Add an ‘x’, and you now get not one cake, but two or more. Plurals are such fun, aren’t they?  

Now, if you want to get all anal and precise, the orthography should include the diacritic called the circumflex: a mark (^) placed over a vowel in some languages to indicate contraction, length, or pitch or tone.

So, who wants cake? 

Gâteau /gah-toh/

Who wants cakes

Gâteaux /gah-toh/ 

What a lark, singular and plural sounding the same! The only way you could tell the difference is the article you affix to your cake (or cakes): 

le gâteau /luh gah-toh/ – the cake

les gâteaux /lay gah-toh/ – the cakes

du gâteau /du gah-toh/ – cake

des gâteaux /day gah-toh/ – cakes

Now, what if you wanted to add some flavor and pizzazz to your cake, give it some fruits, perhaps, or chocolate — who doesn’t love chocolate? 

gâteau aux fruits /gah-toh oh fru-ee/

gâteau au chocolat /gah-toh oh sho-koh-lah/

Raining a fine flurry of icing sugar on my lava cake, my moelleux au chocolat. Yes, it's not really called gâteau au chocolat, but it's sorta like a chocolate cake, isn't it? (Photo: Louis Demeure)

Right now, I want chocolate, and what else do you think I want? Gâteau or gâteaux, cake or cakes? It’s true I may be the greedy sort, and you’re probably thinking: this girl’s going for the second, of course! Want to know the truth? 

The baker girl baketh plenty, oui, but she eateth little. She tastes and savors, and mostly nibbles, but you’re still right about me going for gâteaux, with the ‘x’.  

May I always be blessed with many cakes to bake!

Thirty-six years on, after my plateau class, I’m asking a question in my family chat group days before my birthday. Who wants cake? I don’t tell them what the cake is, but reveal only this: it’s called Gâteau Vivienne

With great enthusiasm, my kid brother raises his hand, Hokkien style: 🙋‍♂️kee chiu (raise the hand). 

Everyone else is coy until the actual day, when we unveil the cake after a nice long lunch of Teochew cuisine and tim sum. My elder brother, ever the storyteller, ever the gourmand-in-chief, he’s merrily indulging in a Mighty Tease: Lai, lai, lai — come, come, come — who wants ga-tew, very special ga-tew?”

Gàteau Vivienne: citrus mascarpone cheesecake with tempered dark chocolate discs. The cookie base has a hidden layer of butter-roasted pineapple slices, a special treat for the birthday girl, who's crazy about yellow and mad about ananas (Photo: viv)

Meet our calligraphed cheesecake, and say Cheese  . . . 

Citrus Mascarpone Cheesecake


Let’s Talk About is a series of reflections offering insights on French pastries, dishes, plus cooking and pastry terms, and how to pronounce them all.

 Our next word: mise en place

Do you have any words you’d like us to feature? Please write to us . . .

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